Shirley is so mesmerizing that it takes rolling credits to realize you aren’t actually rooted in the North Bennington home of writer Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman. For the two hours that proceed this revelation, the new feature film from director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins coils its way right into your marrow. More than a movie, it’s a dream logic poem about what it means to create and live in the ruins of a life dedicated to art. It’s a film about feminine divinity and the hollow curse of living loudly as a woman of brilliance—and the pain and beauty that disposition provokes.
What a raucous legacy Jackson left for us to explore. Elisabeth Moss steps into her shoes for the film, which mines reality through the lens of fiction. The script is loosely based on the eponymous 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, which overlaps Jackson and Hyman’s real relationship with the introduction of two fictional additions to their lives: Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), a young and expecting married couple who move in with the elder scholars. As the film opens, Jackson’s iconic short story “The Lottery” is freshly published in The New Yorker. It’s a story that ignites Rose, who reads it on the train to Bennington, thrilled that her husband’s studies will soon acquaint her with such a literary genius.
But Shirley Jackson isn’t exactly the welcoming sort. Though her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) is warm, gregarious, and inviting, Shirley is highly suspicious, critical, and solitary. She spits barbs at her house guests, is prone to long bouts in bed, and argues mercilessly with her husband despite her breadwinning status as head of house. It’s her work that’s brought them the real attention, although Stanley’s work at the local college is why they’re even in Vermont at all. Their existence in East Coast society is a precarious one; Shirley’s dissatisfaction at simple life feeds her creatively, while Stanley stays sane with extraneous love affairs that Shirley is firmly aware of. It’s the bargain they’ve struck, and it seems to work. Until the Nemsers arrive, that is.
Like the best of Jackson’s real-life work, Shirley is alive with dark magic. Quite literally, too; the author uses spells and tarot to safeguard a pregnant Rose, whom she initially distrusts but slowly beckons into her strange corner of the galaxy—where the world is all one despicable game, and you’re only playing correctly when matching its wickedness. The two make an odd pair. Shirley is uninterested in societal standards, while Rose is a victim of rigor. They represent the duality of the feminine often centered in Jackson’s work (the uptight Eleanor and fluid Theodora in The Haunting of Hill House, the macabre Merricat and the sunny Constance in We Have Always Lived in the Castle), but also within Jackson herself: a homemaker, mother, and wife who is also a witch that writes stories about hauntings, murder, and ritualism.
Shirley is not really a biopic, not really a whole-cloth fabrication; it feels more like a tone poem meditation on the wild, untamed genius that was Shirley Jackson—and a reminder of how famous she deserved to be and never quite was. Weaved into its domestic horror story is the writing of Jackson’s novel Hangsaman, inspired by the disappearance of Paula Jean Welden. The mystery of Paula stains Jackson’s conscience and infects the most alluring frames of Shirley. She looks like Rose, because she is Rose, and she is Shirley, and she is every girl: longing to disappear so they might be seen.
That’s the dilemma of Shirley’s novels and of Shirley the film. It’s a story brilliantly orchestrated by Gubbins, and brought to frenetic life by Madeline’s Madeline director Decker. There is something indescribable about watching feminine madness and creativity unfold through the eyes of female storytellers. Decker and Gubbins conjure magic together.
And then there’s the cast. Moss has proved herself a master of disguise in recent films like Us, Her Smell, and The Invisible Man. She’s no less brilliant here, stepping into the role like it’s a second skin. One gets the sense that she may relate just a bit to this mysterious woman, whose artwork is the source of tremendous highs and lows. Moss has navigated the same peaks and valleys of madness in her roles that Jackson seemingly lived out daily. She is an absolute delight.
Stuhlbarg is fantastic, as always, as her sordid partner, and Lerman is reliable in his small but important role as Stanley’s second-in-command. But it’s Odessa Young who is the true revelation here. If Moss inhabits Jackson with ease, Young makes Rose the perfect Shirley Jackson heroine: beautiful, strange, viper-like. As her straight-laced facade sheds, and she falls deep under Shirley’s spell, so do we dip our toes into a velvet-rich aesthetic where images pop into frame unexpectedly, dreams bleed into reality, and literalism dissipates like a mushroom shrinks on the pan.
Shirley is a dream for fans of the author, who’ve long championed how deserved she is of the same levels of fame as a Stephen King or the prestige of an Edgar Allen Poe. Like Jackson’s work, it blends fairy tale with the burden that is a real-world life: often boring and uninspired. Through her vicious tongue and refusal to be anything but herself, Shirley makes magic for those around her.
It’s a film fitting of her genius. And a film that exposes us to several female geniuses in the making, albeit in different art forms. It’s one of the best movies of the year, and thrillingly anticipates what direction Decker and Gubbins might go next.
Featured Image: NEON